What in the World is an ‘Indiana Banana?’
When I hear the word, "banana," my mind instantly thinks of a tropical location somewhere near an ocean where banana trees stretch out as far as the eye can see and their fruit blow gently in the breeze. It's possible that I've watched too much TV and movies and the areas where bananas grow look nothing like that. But I know for sure the state of Indiana is not what I think of when I think of bananas, which is why I was so confused when I saw someone in a gardening group on Facebook refer to a fruit that looks nothing like a banana as an "Indiana banana."
An Indiana Banana is Not a Banana at All
The discussion in the Evansville Gardeners group started when one of its members posted a couple of photos of some green fruit they had found in a park in Warrick County. The fruit was small enough that they could fit two of them in one hand and were shaped more like an avocado or a small mango. Like me, the member wasn't sure what they found and asked if anyone knew what they were. Several people commented with the term "Indiana banana," but clarified by saying that was a nickname. What she had found were actually called pawpaws.
Now, I have lived in Indiana since the day I was born nearly 47 years ago and I'd like to think I know quite a bit about my home state. However, I don't ever recall hearing of a fruit called the "Indiana banana" or pawpaw. So, I thought I'd enlighten myself (and maybe you if you're unfamiliar with them) by learning more about this fruit.
What is a Pawpaw?
As we've established, pawpaws look nothing like bananas. However, according to Purdue University Extension, they do have a tropical flavor similar to bananas which is likely how they got the nickname. They are also said to have a sweeter taste comparable to a mango.
Pawpaw trees are native to Indiana but are also found in other states such as Michigan, Kentucky, and Maryland where residents of those states also give them the banana nickname, except replacing the "Indiana" part with their own state.
Back in 2021, retired Purdue University consumer horticulture specialist, Rosie Lerner wrote the plants had been around for hundreds of years. Native Americans used the strands of the inner bark of pawpaw trees for making fabric and netting, and a medicinal extract also was harvested from the bark.
Lerner says the trees usually grow to about 20 feet tall and tend to grow in low-wood areas around the Midwest with the Ohio Valley "the heart of its territory."
Are Pawpaws Safe to Eat?
Yes. As a matter of fact, people have been eating pawpaws for years. One of the people who commented on the post in the Evansville Gardeners group said they used them to make pawpaw bread. Another said she incorporated some into a sweet potato pie, while a third said they tried them raw for the first time recently and said their flavor was, "Very sweet. Like banana + apple had a baby."
Where Can You Get Pawpaws?
Unfortunately, you likely won't find pawpaws in your local grocery store. I searched for them both the Walmart and Schnuck's* apps and both came back with no results. The reason for that, according to Stark Bros. is that ripe pawpaws have a three-to-five-day shelf life meaning they'll start to go bad before they even make it to the produce section.
*Schnuck's is a Missouri-based regional grocery chain with locations in the Evansville area where I live.
You're best bet to get your hands on some would be to know someone who has pawpaw plants on their property, or you may be able to find them at a farmer's market. You could also plant your own pawpaw trees, but you're going to be waiting a while before you can reap the fruits of the tree's labor. According to Penn State Extension, grafted pawpaw trees will usually start to bear fruit after two to three years, while new seedlings can take up to 10 years before they start producing.
To see what a pawpaw tree looks like and how they produce their apparently delicious fruit, check out the video below from the Edible Landscaping with Michael Judd YouTube channel.